NIH SciEd Nation Top BannerOSE Home

Roles for Scientists and Engineers in the Schools (NAS, 2005)

What can you do to help K-12 students and teachers? Did you automatically think of visiting a classroom to give a talk? There are many other ways to help improve K-12 science education. Browsing these four categories will help you expand your horizons and find a starting point.

Working Directly With Students

Is this role for you?

You will want to work directly with students if

  • You are willing to be flexible and inventive
  • you like the satisfaction of seeing immediate results
  • you can say "I don't know"
  • you are very interested in what researchers and practitioners know about how children learn

Working directly with students, you will be able to make valuable contributions by

  • modeling scientific inquiry
  • sharing your passion for science
  • connecting science and technology to the "real" world
  • augmenting the science background of the teacher and students
  • helping end the stereotype of scientists as "nerds"

Advice from the field

Scientists and engineers bring to students experience with
  • applications of science
  • the process of inquiry
  • design technology
  • critical and analytical thinking
  • access to resources
  • strong content knowledge

In the science classroom, what this comes down to is that scientists can help support reflective and critical debriefing of hands-on activities and encourage students to ask and discuss questions that begin with "How?" "Why?" and "What if?"

In addition, in working with students inside and outside the classroom, scientists put a personal face on science and help students see why one would choose to do science or to become scientifically literate. They help debunk stereotypes of who scientists are, what they look like, and what they do in their professional and personal lives. Scientists can be personal as well as intellectual role models. Scientists can help students understand how they got to where they are, including how they personally faced and met difficult challenges and even seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

What do scientists and engineers contribute when working directly with students? They

  • help teachers and students feel comfortable saying "I don't know"
  • help teachers recognize good questions
  • model how the goals of scientific questioning differ from those of the usual questions asked in the classroom
  • introduce students to new technologies
  • promote inquiry skills and understandings
  • promote scientific literacy and an inclination to life-long learning
  • help develop a more diverse workforce

Many roles are possible—including mentoring outside of school—but scientists and engineers MUST be properly prepared, trained, and supported in order to be effective with students. Preparation must address student diversity, learning theory, teaching methods, age-appropriate content materials, working effectively with educators, and current education reform issues and implications.

The Do's and Don'ts of Working with Students

  • observe in classrooms first
  • work on breaking down the scientific language you use with colleagues
  • work closely with teachers to learn pedagogy, to understand the diversity of students, and to get general "reality checks"
  • engage students in activities
  • treat content as a way to engage students in critical thinking
  • strive to become involved on a sustained basis
  • lecture
  • take on the role of expert
  • be didactic
  • assume the classroom has abundant resources or equipment
  • expect to be of as much help or influence--at first--as you may have hoped to be; this will develop but gradually

Working Directly with Teachers

Is this role for you?

You may enjoy working with science teachers if you
  • have some experience with modern classrooms (or are willing to get it)
  • are a tactful communicator and willing to play the role of classroom assistant
  • would like to learn and practice new methods of teaching -- with less telling and more doing
  • are in a hurry to see change implemented and more students impacted
A variety of roles is possible for working with teachers:
  • sporadic, "one-shot" opportunities to assist with a specific school activity or teacher workshop
  • partner with a teacher for a longer period through a program that will match you up and train and support both of you
  • participate as a teacher, co-teacher, or facilitator in the training of science teachers through your local school district or a local university, science center, or corporation
  • work in your own professional environment with a teacher who is an intern or a visitor.

Some roles in supporting teachers are less direct than others. Some businesses or professional societies administer mini-grants for teachers' classroom projects or for teachers' professional development. Some large scientific or technical corporations make special efforts to collect surplus equipment and dispense it to teachers or to set up a lending library of classroom resources. Some local companies provide classes related to their product or research area to local teachers on a limited basis.

Advice from the field

The participants in the Working Conference on Scientists and Engineers in the Schools (RISE,1996a)( outlined the following benefits of scientists working with teachers of science. Be sure to notice that the benefits work both ways! By working with science teachers, you will

Provide Classroom Technical Support by

  • being a resource for teacher in content
  • developing extension activities
  • providing extra hands in classroom
  • collaboratively rethinking science fairs and classroom assessment
  • modeling effective discussions and meeting facilitation
Model and Validate Scientific Problem-Solving by
  • consistently modeling science as inquiry
  • connecting the teacher to the world of professional science
  • communicating your excitement about science
  • boosting the scientific self-esteem of students and teachers
  • providing examples of science applications to real life
  • introducing scientific collegial interactions to educators
Address Important Societal Issues by
  • serving as a change agent
  • communicating industry/academic needs and expectations to students and teachers
  • helping the public understand science as a way of knowing as well as a body of knowledge
  • showing scientists as real people
  • communicating to colleagues the power of precollege classroom
  • learning to value K-12 teachers as fellow professionals
Personally Benefit by
  • learning to communicate better with a lay audience
  • learning about human resources and material management from teachers
  • learning the leadership skills necessary to work with a large group of youngsters
  • working with broader scientific topics than your daily work allows
  • receiving a lot of positive feedback
  • becoming better informed about what classrooms are like today
  • learning about learning processes and theories from teachers and experiences with students
Benefit Your Institution by
  • boosting morale because you are supporting families and community
  • helping scientists become better teachers and communicators
  • improving the community image of scientists or engineers
  • educating future voters about science and scientific issues
  • developing better-qualified future employees through better local schools
  • improving corporate citizenship

Supporting Systemic Reform

Is this role for you?

Your local community may have a "systemic initiative" underway, in which you may want to participate. There are probably a number of roles for you to play that require varying levels of effort.

If you are new to K-12 science education reform, you can prepare for having a more systemic impact by becoming involved in a science education partnership working directly with students and teachers. In doing so you will learn the key aspects of the local education system and how it works as a whole. Or you can begin to educate yourself by interacting as an individual with teachers, administrators, and students.

If you are not new to K-12 science education reform, you may be involved in a science education partnership. But you may want to scale up your partnership efforts in order to have a wider, more systemic, more lasting effect.

Scientists who already are or who are ready to be leaders of systemic initiatives in local school systems or at the state level should

  • enjoy politics
  • have a strong commitment to and the patience to work within existing local systems to seek change over time
  • have experience interacting with K-12 educators and be willing to learn much more about state and national education systems
  • respect teachers and believe in public education
  • have at least a little support from their business or academic institution to help them participate more effectively in community outreach.
Scientists and engineers have attributes that are needed and valued in collaborative enterpises such as systemic reform of science education. You have
  • community connections--institutional and personal--that enable you to build coalitions and facilitate communication
  • business and administrative experiences that have taught you how to do long-term strategic planning
the ability to help remove barriers to change with appeals to school boards, community groups, and so on because your opinions are respected due to your status in the community

Advice from the field

Any group that wants to do systemic reform needs to decide on a working definition and communicate that definition to the scientists they target. It's critical that anyone working in systemic reform understand and be able to explain to others the difference between reforming and improving.

  • Working at the systemic level means that scientists work with school districts to achieve institutional restructuring that redefines the meaning of teaching.
  • Systemic ultimately means that change is institutionalized and becomes a way of doing business.
  • A good indicator for whether change has been institutionalized is the way a school district spends money before and after the change initiative.
  • Systemic reformers know the difference between "dabbling" and reforming.
  • Scientists need to understand that change is very complex. Systemic change is a political process. You will need to be dedicated, willing to stick with the process over the long haul. Constant dialogue and friendly pressure eventually result in change.
Plan your work and work your plan. Long-term strategic planning is an absolute necessity. Evaluate and describe current conditions in each relevant area of the education system. Develop goals that help you envision "what it will look like" when your innovations are in place. Then plan step-by-step how to get from here to there, including what your measures of progress will be. Details like who is responsible, numbers of participants, and budgets can become more sketchy as you build the framework past the next 1-2 years.
  • Take time to review progress and revise your plan at least annually.
  • Work to build a consortia of teams working for change. A synergy of strategies will result.
  • Diversify your funding.
    • Stimulate universities and corporations to include voluntary service with K-12 schools as a legitimate professional practice, worthy of merit review.

Helping Develop Instructional Materials

Is this role for you?

Even a lone volunteer scientist can effectively participate in developing instructional materials if:

  • your task is to review a product for content and contextual authenticity and accuracy or for relevant scientific or design processes
  • you are part of a development team that includes professional curriculum developers, classroom teachers, and publications professionals
  • you are being asked to suggest extension activities for existing, successful materials, and teachers are working with you to incorporate their goals and the cognitive levels of their students.
In any of the above activities, do not forget to consult the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) for guidance on appropriate topics for K-12 students.

Advice from the field

Unlike the other roles for scientists discussed in this site, a role in developing instructional materials for K-12 science education is suitable only for a few individuals. Many of those involved in improving science education advise scientists who are interested in developing materials, "Don't Do It!!"

The Science, Engineers, and Scientists in the Schools Conference External Web Site Policy (RISE,1996a) participants who discussed this role agreed that, "The proliferation of "home grown" scientist-teacher content modules may be deleterious to our overall goals of teaching and disseminating good science. Opinions on this subject are often strongly colored by our values, personal goals, and limited experiences."

Nevertheless, several scientists and engineers who did not start out as professional curriculum developers have made outstanding contributions in this area. The facilitation and fund-raising support of professional societies has also helped produce some high-quality instructional materials.

About Us Awards Articles Accessibility
Office of Science Education Home Contact OSE FOIA Linking Policy Privacy Policy
Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives National Institutes of Health Department of Health and Human Services The U.S. Government's Official Web Portal